What Exactly Does 'Outsider Art' Mean, Anyway?

Kelly Griffin | Wednesday, February 01, 2012



(picture Albert Louden, via the Tate)

The 20th annual Outsider Art Fair took place in New York over the weekend, January 27-29, with over thirty exhibitors showing their best and boldest outsider art. But what exactly does that term mean these days?

The term (according to Wikipedia) was first coined by art critic Roger Cardinal in 1972 as an English synonym for art brut, a label created by French artist Jean Dubuffet to describe art created outside the boundaries of official culture (Dubuffet focused particularly on art by insane-asylum inmates),

In this year's press release, the Outsider Art Fair defines the term as ' works made by artists who never went to art school and who generally make their paintings, drawings, sculptures and inventive, mixed-media creations for themselves or for small, local audiences, outside or removed from the cultural or commercial mainstream.'


(picture: Sava Sekulic via The Tate)

Journalist Paul Hiebert attended the Fair over the weekend and wrote an interesting write-up over at Flavourwire where he asked curators, scholars and artists at the Fair what the term meant to them.

Some of the comments included:

"I think outsider art is a pretty tenuous term, and it means a lot of different things to different people. For me, it means not part of the regular art world. But it’s also been ruined by the fact that this is such an insider thing. Sometimes it’s on the verge of exploitation. Once a piece crosses the threshold into being recognized by the art world as art, it becomes a different thing. It’s become very confusing in the last two decades.” — KT Tierney, Artist


“Outsider art is work that’s made outside of the traditional communication lines. I work a lot with autistic artists, and their artwork is a pressure valve because there is no filter. That work excites me because it possesses magic.” — Margaret Bodell, Gallerist at Umbrella Arts

“Outsider art is untrained work. It’s unconventional. It’s more interesting to me than the contemporary stuff because nobody’s playing by the rules. The advantage of being labeled an outsider is that people can feel like they discovered you, while the disadvantage is that you don’t have the blue-blood background to get you in the easy route.” — Jason D’Aquino, Artist


(picture: Tom Duncan, via Flavorwire)

In response to last year's Outsider Art Fair, Martha Schwendener wrote in the New York Times: "I once asked an art dealer how he determined whether someone was an outsider artist, and he offered this criterion: anyone who called up and said he or she was an outsider artist was immediately disqualified. In his view, outsider artists don’t self-identify and they don’t operate telephones. "

And, again in the New York Times Ken Johnson wrote: Some people think the label "outsider artist" should be retired. Why does it matter whether an artist is self-taught, mentally impaired or deranged. The best outsider art is good for the same reasons that art by professional insiders is good: because it is formally eye-catching, inventively made, unpredictably imaginative and passionately driven."

Did you attend the Outsider Art Fair?

What does Outsider Art mean to you?

Do you think the term still relevant?

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